7 October 2023

Regulator wins appeal in Supreme Court pokies battle against Griffith's Area Hotel and Gemini

| Oliver Jacques
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Outside shot of The Area Hotel

Griffith’s Area Hotel has tried to increase its poker machine entitlement. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

The state’s gambling regulator has won an appeal against a NSW Supreme Court decision that would have allowed Griffith’s Area Hotel to install seven more poker machines at its venue without having to employ certain harm reduction measures.

The decision comes as new data indicates residents in Griffith and surrounds lost more than $18 million on pokies in the first six months of 2023.

The Area Hotel had applied to the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority (ILGA) to increase its poker machine threshold from 23 to 30 and to lease seven pokie entitlements from the nearby Griffith Hotel in April 2021.

The ILGA approved their application on the condition that a dedicated staff member at the Griffith venue monitored the gaming machines whenever they operated. This staff member would have duties such as identifying “players who display problematic gambling behaviour” and providing information about problem gambling counselling.

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The Area Hotel objected to having this condition imposed on them, so took the matter to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favour of the Griffith pub in June 2023.

In the same judgement, Justice McNaughton ruled in favour of two other establishments also owned by publican Jim Knox that also sought to increase their poker machine entitlements – Griffith’s Gemini Hotel and Armidale’s Whitebull Hotel – who objected to having similar harm reduction measures imposed on them.

The judge accepted the argument by lawyers representing the pubs that ILGA exceeded its power in imposing the harm minimisation methods, because the authority used its powers under a provision of the Liquor Act, which they said did not relate to gaming. The pubs’ lawyers also argued that in this matter, “questions of the possible or likely impacts on the local community are irrelevant”.

However, in the NSW Court of Appeal, Justices Meagher, Kirk and Griffiths found that Justice McNaughton “erred” in making this decision and found the argument that the Liquor Act couldn’t be used to regulate gaming machines as “unpersuasive”. The decision to overturn the original judgement was published on 20 September 2023.

“The [ILGA] is required, when exercising its functions under the Liquor Act, to have due regard to the need to ensure that the operation of licensed hotels and clubs does not detract from the amenity of community life. Social harm from the operation of gaming machines could certainly detract from that amenity,” the judgement stated.

The ILGA welcomed this decision.

“This decision affirms ILGA’s decision-making powers to consider the impact of gaming machines (pokies) on the community when it considers applications under the Gaming Machines Act. It also affirms the authority’s ability to impose conditions on gaming machines using its powers under the Liquor Act,” an ILGA spokesperson said.

Dr Joe McGirr

Wagga MP Dr Joe McGirr has been a vocal supporter of pokies reform. Photo: NSW Parliament.

Region contacted the Area Hotel and Gemini’s owners Knox Corp to find out if the pubs will be going ahead with increasing the number of poker machines on its venues and follow the ILGA’s original harm reduction directives, but a media spokesperson said they would not comment on the matter.

ILGA also declined to explain how the NSW Court of Appeal decision would specifically impact on the Griffith pubs and their moves to increase their pokies entitlement.

The latest available data from ILGA shows all clubs in the Griffith Local Government Area already have a combined 376 poker machines, with residents losing $10,252,220 through them in the six-month period between 1 December 2022 and 31 May 2023.

On top of that, residents lost $8,039,259 to 129 additional poker machines in hotels in Griffith, Leeton and Murrumbidgee in the six-month period between 1 January 2023 and 30 June 2023 [The ILGA told Region it could not provide data on hotels for Griffith alone as individual venues might be identified].

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Heavy losses suffered by poker machine users is one reason Riverina-based MPs Joe McGirr and Helen Dalton have campaigned in favour of reforms aimed at minimising harm caused by problem gambling.

NSW has more machines per person than anywhere in the world, with about $1000 spent on pokies each year for each person in the state.

The NSW Government has recently sought to reduce the overall number of pokies in the state. It has lowered the state’s cap on poker machines entitlements available to pubs and clubs across NSW by more than 3000, limiting them to entitlements currently in circulation.

Original Article published by Oliver Jacques on Region Riverina.

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